GREENSBORO — People who encounter Jana Yan through her charity efforts are sometimes surprised to discover there's a teenager running the operation.
But the Northwest Guilford High School senior said those who know her well are less shocked to hear she is making and sending thousands of masks to people across the world to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
"If I want to do something, I’m pretty keen on doing it," she said.
Yan, whose grandparents are tailors, has been sewing most her life and got her first sewing machine at about age eight or nine.
In 2018, Yan launched her first Etsy store, selling custom-stitched monogrammed items.
The market to sell such goods is extremely competitive, Yan said, and most Etsy stores get overlooked. So she decided to research and learn about how to market her business.
Yan said that with some better strategies and photos, she was able to get her products featured a few times on Etsy and by a few home-design magazines.
With that exposure, and with high profit margins due to some inexpensive materials, Yan said she was able to make about 9,000 sales and a profit of somewhere in the range of $150,000 to $200,000 over the course of two years.
But when the pandemic hit, Yan's attention was diverted. She has since closed that Etsy shop.
She started another Etsy store called StitchbyJ in April, intending it would be a smaller operation serving mostly family and friends.
But that didn't happen.
StitchByJ, which Yan said has not been profitable, offers face masks on a buy-one, donate-one basis, as well as some masks where the proceeds are designated for specific charities.
"Honestly, the pandemic really changed my views on life and what my goals should be," Yan said.
She is now looking at studying social work in college and has put money from her past store's profits toward something called the Guilford Mask Project.
"There are so many different problems in the world," Yan said. "It’s more worth it to me doing that than making a monogram sweatshirt."
Yan said her Guilford Mask Project now has about 16 or 17 volunteers. She has a couple of seamstresses in Michigan who are working with her, but the majority of volunteers are actually helping with communications.
The Guilford Mask Project has a website and multiple social media accounts, with regular posts about masks that are made and donated.
Yan said she could use more donations of fabric as well as help taking batches of masks and supplies back and forth from the post office.
On Sunday, the group posted about sending 100 masks to Michigan social workers to help protect children in foster care.
Other recent recipients include the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota and volunteers at a refugee camp in Greece.
Yan said she is finding many of her recipients through a website called GetPPE.org and also works with an initiative known as the Million Mask Challenge.
Maybe the hardest thing she's dealt with, Yan said, was an occasion when she donated masks to a man for what she thought was going to be a free distribution, only to discover that he was reselling them online. That's made her warier about who she chooses to support.
And then there are those she does support.
Hannah Klein is a teacher with the Akoyikoyi School, a tuition-free primary school located on the island of Weno in the Federated States of Micronesia. She discovered StitchbyJ while looking on Etsy for masks to purchase for the school's students. Micronesia, a country of multiple islands spread across the Pacific Ocean, doesn't currently have any cases, Klein said, but school leaders hoped to get students started wearing masks ahead of any potential spread to their island.
Klein found out there wasn't money in the budget to immediately purchase an order from StitchbyJ, but Yan contacted her to say that she would donate the masks instead. She shipped 130 reusable masks to the school, along with school supplies.
"I literally almost cried," Klein said. "Seeing her art and also her generosity in action is really really cool."
Yan said she's been spending about 15 hours a week on the project. The fact that school has been online, she explained, has made her time more flexible.
It's tough to deal with isolation from friends and the stress of college applications, she said, and working on the masks has helped get her through it.
"Honestly, the pandemic has been really depressing," she said. "To be able to do something that I enjoy doing, and doing it for someone else, is always a fun experience for me."
Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.